Guatemalans Expand into Paterson

Members of Paterson’s Guatemalan Association (Photo via Reporte Hispano)

The Guatemalan community in New Jersey – settled in opposite areas of the state, in Trenton (in central NJ) and Fairview (in the northeast) – is expanding quickly into neighboring cities and counties.

Recently, they turned up in Paterson to celebrate the 196th anniversary of their country’s independence from Spanish rule – proclaimed on Sept. 15, 1821 (along with El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) – with traditional music and dances from the Central American country.

To the rhythm of the marimba, Guatemala’s quintessential national musical instrument, the güiro and electric guitars, and wearing hats, tight pants and pointy boots, the members of the band María Bonita got local residents dancing.

An assortment of Guatemalan snacks was offered, and vendors sold delicately-made, colorful, hand-woven shawls and sandals.

Erick Rivera, president of Paterson’s Guatemalan Association (“Asociación Guatemalteca Paterson”), who was born in Guatemala City’s Zone 1 and has spent 20 years on U.S. soil, confirmed that the Guatemalan community in the area has grown.

Guatemalan band María Bonita (Photo via Reporte Hispano)

“We do not have an exact number, but I would say that we have between 2,000 and 4,000 compatriots in Passaic County,” speculates Rivera. “And we have many cultural expressions, such as restaurants where you can eat Guatemalan food, dance troupes who promote our traditions, and musicians who stand out by performing our national music.”

Carlos Díaz, one of the founders of the association, said that the first time the Guatemalan flag was raised in the city was in 1986. It was done again in 1992, 1993 and 2001.

“Still, we had never, ever had so many compatriots accompany us and play our marimba in front of City Hall,” said Díaz.

Consul General of Guatemala in New York Myriam de La Roca said that Guatemalans, affectionately nicknamed “Chapines,” are contributing to the United States’ progress while maintaining their national identity.

For the director of the Chapina association, Boonny Gámez – from Asunción Mita, in the municipality of Jutiapa, and who has lived in Paterson for 12 years – it is not only about commemorating their country’s independence but also about uniting Guatemalans so that they are able to help one another.

“I was very happy to see that people answered our call, as our main purpose is for us to come together. Many don’t even know that there are Guatemalans here and, yes, we are here. We have to come out of anonymity and say that we are present so we can help each other.”

She added that they are grateful that a foreign country such as the U.S. has welcomed them, “but we also need to stay united and keep our identity, and show this country that we have a lot to contribute to this society.”

There is a first time for everything, which Verónica Sazo, another Chapina, can attest to. The event was her Guatemalan “baptism” in the U.S. Even though she has lived in the city for 10 years, only recently did she learn that her country was going to be celebrated in Paterson.

“I hope it’s not the last time; this was beautiful. I am proud of this moment. It reminds me of my country.”

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